...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

This is kind of like my thesis in a nutshell (minus the sexualized violence)

First things first:

1) I found The Comics Curmudgeon via MizzMarvel, and it is so funny: daily commentary and snark on the syndicated newspaper comics. I'm always up for some good old-fashioned Pluggers-bashing.

2) The "s" and "g" keys on my keyboard are sticking and it's incredibly irritating. I think maybe an ant crawled under the keys. I wish I were kidding.

On to more important things:

Last Sunday I went to a lecture at Havurah Shalom ("Fellowship of Peace"), Portland's Reconstructionist synagogue. Apparently every year they bring in a scholar in residence who gives a series of lectures and classes; this year the scholar was Dr. Tamar Kamionkowsi, a feminist biblical scholar and dean of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, the principal organization that trains and ordains Reconstructionist rabbis and cantors. (I was pleased that two of my professors--Rishona and Sylvia--know me and my interests well enough that they both gave me a heads-up about the lecture series). The lecture on Sunday was about feminist interpretation of Ezekiel 16, a shockingly violent and misogynistic prophecy against Israel (technically Judea? I don't remember enough from Old Testament class which prophets preached against the Northern or the Southern Kingdoms). In chapter 16, Ezekiel likens Israel and the Jewish people to an ungrateful whore of a wife who spreads her legs for all the passing men and fornicates with phallic idols; the passage we read (up until verse 34) culminates in the gang rape of Israel, which is necessary before God can forgive her.

I was expecting Dr. Kamionkowski's lecture to be standard format: her at the front at the bima (like the pulpit), and everyone else in chairs. I was surprised and intimidated to walk into the room and see that the chairs were all set up around big tables in a square formation and a Hebrew/English copy of the Tanakh in front of every place. The arrangement helped faciliate discussion, though, and I loved the extent to which Dr. Kamionkowski's feminist theory was reflected in her praxis. At the beginning of the lecture, we all got into small groups and read through the text then discussed our reactions to it; I was sitting with my thesis advisor Sylvia, and she followed along in the Hebrew while I read the English aloud. Dr. Kamionkowski herself had tons of interesting insights about significance of the Hebrew verb tenses and translation issues, and the cultural context of the text. Plus, she followed what's now my fantasy academic progression: BA from a small liberal arts college, MDiv from Harvard Divinity, PhD in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis.

I never thought I would hear the words "strap-on dildo" spoken aloud in a synagogue, that's for sure.

(Religious Studies nerdiness ahead)

I mentioned at the beginning of Holy Week that there's a somewhat paradoxical relationship between Jewish Renewal and Reconstructionism, and the more time I spend in Reconstructionist circles, the more clear that paradox becomes. Renewal and Reconstructionism are probably the two most influential emergent Jewish denominations (although Reconstructionism has been around a great deal longer); they're pretty much at the forefront of liberal Judaism. Certainly, most of the literature about tikkun olam comes from either Renewal or Reconstructionist sources--a lot of the articles I've found are from the publication The Reconstructionist, and Havurah Shalom, like probably most progressive congregations of any denomination, urges its members to practice tikkun olam as environmental conservation and social justice.

The ironic thing is that, while tikkun olam appears in the traditional liturgy and in some texts from the rabbinic period, the concept didn't gain any momentum until Isaac Luria picked it up and spun his Kabbalistic theology around it in the Middle Ages. Suddenly, tikkun olam was not just about proper legal action, as it was in the rabbinic period; it was about healing the shattered vessels of God's sacred light that shattered during tzimtzum, the contractions that created the world. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidism, further developed Lurianic Kabbalah; this is, essentially, the tikkun olam of Chabad, and Jewish Renewal maintains the idea to at least an extent.

But whereas Renewal explicitly positions itself within a mystical understanding of the world, and draws heavily on Kabbalah (especially the Lurianic "four worlds" theology and the sefirot), and teachings from the Hasidic masters, Reconstructionism, in its founding, was staunchly anti-mystical. Its founder, Mordechai Kaplan, was an opponent of Kabbalah and wanted to strip Judaism of the notion of a supernatural God, as well as notions of spiritual exceptionalism/essentialism. Reconstructionism is much, much more rationalized than Renewal. To explain the difference using Weberian language, I would say that Reconstructionism is characterized by inner-worldly ascetic religious activism; Renewal by inner-worldly mystic religion; and Chabad by world-rejecting mysticism. (That's a really rough categorization...if you want more detail, you should come to the Religious Studies thesis presentations a week from Saturday!)

It's interesting to me that Renewal and Reconstructionism work together to the extent that they do, given that Kaplan was so rationalized and anti-mystical. When I went to Shabbat services at Havurah two weeks ago, I had the chance to chat with the rabbi, Rabbi Wolf, during the oneg, and I asked him if contemporary Reconstructionism maintains the same antagonism or skepticism towards Kabbalah and mysticism that Kaplan did. Rabbi Wolf told me that he thinks, in the years since its founding, Reconstructionism has come almost full circle, to an incorporation and appreciation of mysticism: "That's the entry way into Judaism for people now. Those are the questions people are asking; that's they way that people are finding to relate to God." He attributed the reinvigoration of mystic Judaism to the Jewish Renewal spirit that's pervaded, in his words, "all of liberal Judaism." I found that so fascinating, since it's an opinion I've heard before, but only from Renewal sources.

His daughter came up to say something to him, so I assumed we were done talking and began to drift over to the oneg table. "Wait, Jessica, one more thing," he said, calling me back. "Kaplan didn't like the notion of the supernatural God--okay. And many people nowadays have a problem with the supernatural God, the idea that God is so big and just out there somewhere. But what the mystics tell us, is that God isn't just some supernatural being, out there--that God is within ourselves, that instead of being some big thing, God can be so small, and within ourselves, so small and concentrated that He approaches nothingness."

"The Ein Sof," I said.

"That's right, the Ein Sof. And so you see, that's an entry way into Judaism for many people who are disenchanted with the idea of the supernatural puppet-master God: the Ein Sof."

I don't think I'm going to be able to talk about the relationship between Reconstructionism and Renewal for more than a footnote in my thesis, which is unfortunate. But Havurah Shalom is a beautiful synagogue and the people there are very friendly, and I hope to continue to be involved in their services and events. I love P'nai Or the more full-flung incorporation of mystical theology and Hasidic traditions, and I adore Reb Aryeh. But I think that when P'nai Or has lay-led services, which happens about once a month, I'll try to go to Havurah that morning instead.